BFI Flare: The Complexities of LGBTQ+ Casting

Spotlight recently partnered on Casting Case Studies, an event in BFI Flare: London LGBTQ+ Film Festival's Industry Programme that explored individual experiences of LGBTQ+ casting, the challenges faced by transgender performers, and the ethics of street casting to reflect real life experiences.

The panel on 29th March, hosted by Spotlight’s Emma Dyson, was formed by casting directors Heather Basten and Andy Brierley, producer Jack Casey, writer/director Christopher Manning and actor Ed Zephyr. Each industry expert shared their experience of LGBTQ+ casting for their latest projects.

It was quickly established that casting for some LGBTQ+ stories can present difficulties, as storytellers look for authentic actors, but also need actors willing to participate in these projects. This was particularly the case for Heather and Christopher’s short films (Batty Boy and Isha respectively), both of which include sensitive scenes.

Despite openness around the inclusion of these scenes in the script, this wasn’t always well received. Christopher struggled to cast actors who were willing to participate in sexual scenes, and parents made it difficult for Heather to cast even the supporting roles with younger actors. However, this proved to be better for the production in the long run, as although it whittled down the pool of performers she could choose from, it was better to ensure there was clarity and agreement around the script, for all performers participating in the project, before filming began.

Andy, alternatively, with the popularity of Silent Witness behind him, is able to cast for a diverse variety of story lines. The well-known television show is a playground that has evolved beyond tokenism, where real-life communities fuel the content, any minority without a story just hasn’t had their story told yet, and LGBTQ+ performers are cast in non-LGBTQ+ roles. Of course, Andy recognises that this wouldn’t be possible if the show was new, and such freedom of casting brings with it new challenges to consider, such as asking, ‘At what point in the transition process is it appropriate to cast an actor in a transgender role?’

As a transgender actor himself, Ed said he is often baffled that transgender actors are only considered for transgender roles, even though they have received the same training and are just as capable as cisgender actors.

The best roles that I can play aren’t necessarily trans. In me are… all sorts of characters.
Ed Zephyr

Transgender performers appear to be trapped in the shadow of being type cast, where the need to bring them in for cisgender roles isn’t well understood, and yet Ed has been called in for transgender roles that are wrong for him, just because he is transgender. People at all levels of the industry need to be educated about the importance of a varied cast, and the importance of proactive casting needs to be recognised.

With casting directors looking both to Spotlight and street casting to fill those roles with authentic performers, the panel also debated the sensitive nature of the process. Not all transgender performers will want to reveal they are transgender, to give themselves a better chance at cisgender roles, and some ‘LGB’ performers will not be ‘out’.

Jack had to take this into consideration during the casting of his short film, Marco, when seeing non-professional actors for a refugee character. When auditioning queer refugees for the part, particularly those not out to their families, it was vital to explain that the film would be entered into festivals and travel beyond the borders of a single country, potentially putting them in compromising positions. Jack needed to ensure they understood this, were okay with this, and weren’t losing sight of how life-changing this might be amidst the excitement of being part of a film.

Similarly, the prospect of being street cast can be a dangerous temptation to vulnerable people. Heather street casts to find naturally talented people for whom acting might not be a viable or sustainable career option. However, she recognises that sometimes these performers will just be playing themselves. This culmination of real life and experience is often what casting directors are looking to reflect, but when they use real people to reflect it, they must be mindful about whether they are putting that person at risk.

Questions soon arose about other forms of diverse casting. Is it necessary for certain performers to be disregarded when casting for historical films and documentaries, for the sake of accuracy and authenticity? Should it always be that the best actor gets the role, instead of focusing more on fleshing out a production with a diverse and authentic cast?

Andy ended and summarised the solution to such discussions by emphasising how important it is for casting directors to communicate with performers:

I think it’s about a continuing conversation, talking to actual people, rather than talking about people.
Andy Brierley

A massive thanks to the BFI for another fantastic LGBTQ+ Film Festival. Information about their future events can be found here.

Batty Boy (co-directed and co-written by Blain Ho-Shing and Dior Clarke), Marco (written and directed by Saleem Haddad) and Isha (written and directed by Christopher Manning) are all UK short films that were screened at this year’s festival.